Magritte and Post-Impressionist art: Alexander Adams is enthused by two stimulating surveys

The effects of Liverpool’s time as City of Culture in 2008 are still becoming apparent as various building projects reach completion. Liverpool has many excellent museums, to which number the Museum of Liverpool is due to be added. My visit to Liverpool was before the museum’s opening on July 19th, so I made do with two significant shows which will run until the autumn: a survey of Magritte and a partial reconstruction of a pioneering exhibition of Post-Impressionist art held at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool in 1911. (The Bluecoat Gallery itself has recently been refurbished. The excellent diverse bookshop and the well-stocked art-materials store have both left and the gallery, which occasionally hosted worthwhile shows, now runs an exhibition programme of the driest and least engaging type. What was once a hub of artistic activity has been reduced to a deracinated husk. Best to bypass it entirely and visit the newly relocated Probe Records next door instead.)

The 1910-11 display “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Gallery, London is a celebrated landmark in British Modernism. What is less well-known is that the show (minus the Manets) travelled to Liverpool before the pictures were dispersed. Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 (Walker Art Gallery, closes September 25th) is an investigation of the second display, which included local Liverpool artists alongside the French painters. The French artists included Denis, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Serusier, Signac, Vlaminck and others.

As co-curator Charlotte Keenan comments of the 1911 show, the sheer heterogeneity of styles evident in the French paintings must have contributed to the incomprehension of viewers. Press response was apparently muted, not helped by tension between the Sandon Studios Society (SSS), the guiding spirit behind the Liverpool display, and the Municipal Art Gallery (the Walker). The SSS was a Liverpool arts club along the lines of the Omega Workshop conceived in the spirit of the Bloomsbury Group. The most notable member was Augustus John.

In the current exhibition art is placed alongside information about the industrial strife on Merseyside in the summer of 1911. Transport and dock workers came out on strike and the Army (supported by a warship) were brought in to break the strike, leading to violent and fatal conflict. The link between revolutionary art and socialism isn’t at all tenuous. The artists tended to emphasise intellectual and moral reforms, while the trades unionists agitated for

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political and industrial change, but there were many common areas of overlap. The point is well made but the busy graphics and film audio distract from viewing the art. Part of the exhibition examines art exhibited by the Walker Art Gallery during 1911: a display of photographs and an annual autumn salon. The paintings are not markedly more conservative than the art of the Sandon Group exhibited and attracted more visitors at the time. Prints and textiles demonstrate the influence of the 1911 show on local artists.

So, how do the British artists hold up against the French? Well, the British look slightly tweedy compared to their French colleagues. Certainly there is nothing to match to a fiery, vigorous landscape by Matisse, borrowed from Belgrade, or a pen-and-pencil drawing by Van Gogh, A Corner of the Garden of St Paul’s Hospital at St Rémy (1889), which seethes and roils. Yet the Philip Wilson Steer landscape The Horseshoe Bend of the Severn has a lot of energy, though the colour is a little sludgy. Albert Lipczinski’s portraits are bright and vivid and James Hamilton Hay’s Falling Star has Whistlerian moodiness but one longs for some unruliness.

The Albert Marquet (1875-1947) canvas is a view of Notre Dame Cathedral in mist and snow, painted with spirit and restraint. Was Marquet as natural a painter as Derain (also shown here)? Quite possibly. Certainly his output was more consistent, less intense and severe. Does the fact that Marquet’s might be a little easier to live with than Derain’s reduce the level of the achievement? Marquet’s art rewards repeated encounters. We should think of him as more than a spear carrier and assess his art on its own terms.

1911: Art and Revolution in Liverpool, The Life and Times of Albert Lipczinski (Sansom & Company, 215pp, illus, £15) is David Bingham’s biography of the German-Polish artist who played a part in the Sandon Studios Society (SSS). Lipczinski (1876-1974) was a painterly realist in the mould of John. His spirited portraits are refreshingly lively. He painted portraits of some union figures. A dark, atmospheric and detailed nude of c.1906-9 offers a glimpse of an untaken path. He was deported back to Poland in 1919 and his work declined in quality it seems partly due to neglect and to difficult circumstances in Danzig. The city suffered depression, dictatorship, war, annexation and Communist oppression in less than two decades, so understandably creativity was somewhat sidelined by the business of survival. The biography is an ideal primer for exhibition visitors and an insight into the Liverpool art scene of the period.

As mentioned in the review of Miró in the last issue, curators often claim to have new perspectives on great artists. The thesis of René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle (Tate Liverpool, until October 16th) is that Magritte was more intellectually engaged by his commercial work and 502 Bad Gateway his photography and home movies than had been hitherto realised. On the evidence here, it is definitely clear that the artist put more thought and creativity into his posters and advertisements than he needed to. How much of this fed back into his art is debatable. Nonetheless, what is impressive about this display is how the quality of the works and the selection of items provide a satisfying


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overview of Magritte not allowing any explicit curatorial direction to intrude. The hang is very well judged, sequencing small groups of work to illuminate an aspect, even arranging works in the best order. The pairing of two versions of La Saveur des larmes (The Taste of Tears, 1948) – one from Brussels, the other from Birmingham – is salutary. Although supposedly near identical, the colouring and background cloud formations do differ distinctly.

The coffin paintings are an example of how context alters reception. Magritte painted versions of David’s Mme Recamier Reclining and Manet’s Balcony, replacing the figures with coffins. This creates an energising frisson as the viewer superimposes his memory of the depictions of the living over Magritte’s coffins. The tension between the remembered living and the present dead is the meaning of the works, yet today many viewers do not know the originals and simply take the Magrittes as japes. Supplying comparative figures in a catalogue does not create the same effect, though it is the best that can be done to remedy the lack of familiarity.

What we have here is an excellent survey of Magritte’s ideas (transformation, substitution, juxtaposition, association, reversal, words as icons) with much supporting material. The only periods which are not represented are pre-Surrealist (before 1926) and Renoir (1943-1947) periods, neither of which is essential and the latter certainly not missed. The brief Vache period is covered by a clutch of paintings. The Ellipsis (1948) – showing an amalgamated misfit figure with rifle-barrel nose and lime-green skin – is an assured and troubling piece of buffoonery, sour and sinister. Only an artist at the top of his game could produce such deft painting. Sceptics who doubt Magritte’s credentials as a painter (as opposed to mere image fabricator) should study this painting in particular.

The most compelling items are the early (pre-1930) paintings when the art was dark, rough and urgent. It carried the real risk of failure and smelt of anxiety. Though the later works have a degree of serenity and majesty, one can miss the fear and compulsion that drove the young Magritte. That said, it is hard not to melt a little in the face of Towards Pleasure (1962), in which a bowler-hatted man faces a nocturnal landscape. Like a Rückenfigur from a Friedrich painting, we share the figure’s contemplation of Nature. The palette is perfectly judged, consisting only of blue and grey for the clouded sky and blacks for the man, trees, curtain and misty field. The only touch of warm colour is the palest of yellows for the limpid full moon.

Some of the best-known Magrittes are here: (the surprisingly big) Tomb of the Wrestlers (1960), where a red rose fills a room, Golconda (1953) with its raining men and MoMA’s The Menaced Assassin (1927). Key works are complemented by rarely seen minor works. The collection builds to a well-balanced picture of the painter’s concerns and accomplishments. For anyone who is not able to travel to Brussels to see the René Magritte museum, a visit to Liverpool is recommended.

Alexander Adams is an artist and writer.

The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011